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Anonymous (18th century)
Anonymous (18th century)

Scenes from the Taishokan

Details
Anonymous (18th century)
Scenes from the Taishokan
Twelve paintings mounted as a pair of six-panel screens; ink and color on paper
Each painting 43 7/8 x 15 5/8in. (111.5 x 39.7cm.)

Lot Essay

Taishokan is an ancient folktale about a diving woman (ama) who retrieves a precious gem from the Dragon King of the Sea. At the center of the story is the founder of the Fujiwara clan, Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-669), also known by his court title, Taishokan (meaning "The great Woven Cap"). Kamatari has a beautiful daughter named Kohaku. Her reputation spreads to China. The Tang-dynasty emperor Taizong (r. 627-49), hopelessly infatuated, sends emissaries to ask for her hand in marriage (seen on the right screen, far right panel). Eventually Kamatari agrees and Kohaku is sent to the Chinese palace (right screen, fourth panel from the right). She is shown in China with the Emperor in the right screen, third panel from the right. Kohaku sends back a gift to her father in the form of a priceless quartz gem. The Dragon King of the Sea devises a plan to steal the gem. He sends demonic warriors called Asura to battle the Chinese envoys who are sailing to Japan with the gem. The Asura are repelled (right screen, far left). Then he uses his daughter, the Dragon Princess, to distract the Chinese general. She is set adrift in a reed boat near the Chinese fleet (right screen, fifth panel from right). The Chinese general rescues her and she seizes the opportunity to steal the gem from him. To the surprise of the Chinese, she vanishes with the gem (left screen, fourth panel from right).

Kamatari receives the presents that have been sent from China but when he reads through the list of gifts he notes that the precious gem is missing (left screen, far right panel). He disguises himself as a commoner and woos an abalone diver who becomes his wife and bears him a son (left screen, second panel from the right). He then enlists the diving woman in his plan to retrieve the gem from the palace of the Dragon King. He is shown pointing his finger out to sea, explaining the dangerous task he has in mind for her. She infiltrates the underwater palace of the Dragon King in order to snatch the gem from the pagoda where it is enshrined (left screen, third panel from right). Knowing that the Dragon King is fond of music, Kamatari stages a musical performance on ships in the harbor. The Dragon King and his retinue are thus lured away from their palace (left screen, fifth panel). The diving woman snatches the gem and is pursued by the monstrous dragon. She is forced to slit open her chest to hide the gem and is hoisted up into the boat by her lifeline. The scene on the sixth panel of the left screen shows a heavy-duty winch. Whereas the tale relates that she dies in Kamatari's arms, the artist here suggests a happy ending.

The imagery here is derived from late-17th century illustrated printed books. Screens with this subject were very popular in the mid Edo period. There is a related example in the Shidoji temple, Kagawa Prefecture. For a discussion of Taishokan imagery see Berne Jesse, "Retrieving the Priceless Gem: The Taishokan folding screens in the Art Institute of Chicago," Arts of Asia 29 (May-June 1999), 111-125; Daniele Talerico, "Interpreting Sexual Imagery in Japanese Prints: A Fresh Approach to Hokusai's Diver and Two Octopi," Impressions 23 (2001), 24-41.
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